Babysitting wasn't usually in Casey Jackson's repertoire.
Neither was snow.
Taken together, that made it pretty damn confounding that he was currently driving through a blizzard on his way to a babysitting job. But this babysitting job was special. It was, quite literally, a babysitting job he couldn't refuse.
Not if he wanted to stay gainfully employed, at least.
Which he did. It was a matter of necessity. And pride.
Squinting through the windshield of his rented four-wheel-drive Subaru, trying not to become hypnotized by the flurries of snowflakes hitting the glass, Casey reminded himself he could do this. He could babysit. And he could drive through a snowstorm.
Hell, he could do anything! He might not typically hang out with rug rats (a very deliberate choice) or grapple with badass subzero weather conditions (or any weather conditions, really)—as a top troubleshooter with one of L.A.'s premier talent agencies, he had little need to do either—but he did get things done. He got problems sorted, difficult divas placated, and on-set imbroglios smoothed over.
Making things right was Casey's specialty. Handling things that other people couldn't manage was his forte. He was the man who got in, got everyone back on track, and then got out ... leaving everyone in his wake satisfied, harmonized, and improbably happy to have been "managed" by the best in the business. It was just what he did. He didn't know why he did it so well. He just ... did.
Until Casey had joined his agency, his job hadn't even existed. One crucial averted crisis later, it had. Thanks to his first major success, now his agency paid him to go wherever necessary to rehab star athletes' dinged public images, settle down wild rockers and rappers, and mollify demanding megastars—megastars like pop sensation Heather Miller, whose over-the-top, over-budget, wildly ambitious Live! from the Heartland televised Christmas special had brought him to Kismet in the first place.
His agency didn't usually pay Casey to babysit. But they did trust him enough to give him a very long leash. That meant that he was free to deal with crises like this one on his own terms. If Casey wanted to spend the next few weeks making like a muscle-bound, frostbitten, ridiculously overpaid man-nanny while he worked his deal-making magic with Heather Miller and her TV special, he could. So that's what he was going to do.
Even if the thought of doing it while stuck in the tiny, touristy, northwestern Michigan burg of Kismet made him want to bolt for Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids, some fifty miles distant, and forget he'd ever set foot in town.
Seriously. The place was like a freaking Christmas card come to life, Casey realized as the blizzard momentarily eased up. He ran his windshield wipers to push away the snow and then peered outside again, taking in the picturesque, snow-piled, lively small-town streets surrounding him. Old-fashioned holiday decorations were plastered over every inch of available space. Holiday music wafted from municipal speakers, penetrating his car's windows as he waited at a stoplight. Shoppers bustled to and fro on the surrounding sidewalks, carrying overstuffed bags and smiling at one another. A few of them even smiled at him.
He frowned, momentarily bewildered by their neighborliness. Then he smiled back. He lifted his gloved hand in a brief wave.
The passersby waved back, then kept going. Still flummoxed, Casey watched as they made their way into a nearby sweetshop, stamping their booted feet and adjusting their woolly scarves.
L.A. was friendly enough—hell, just about everyone everywhere was friendly to Casey—but this bucolic, over-the-top holiday jollity was different. It was totally inexplicable.
Somehow, he realized, his newest assignment had taken him to The Twilight Zone 2.0: The Hallmark Channel Edition.
Most of the year, as Casey had learned before leaving L.A., Kismet was a resort town full of lakeside B&Bs, busy bait-and-tackle shops, dusty antique stores, and run-down mom-and-pop restaurants. Thanks to in-state day-trippers and out-of-state vacationers who were willing to pay for its kitschy ambiance, the town had done all right for itself, even in a shaky economy.
What Casey hadn't uncovered beforehand—what everyone at his agency had undoubtedly hidden from him (with good reason)—was that, in December, the whole damn place turned into Christmas Central. It was, Casey thought as he surveyed the scene anew, like a Norman Rockwell painting crossed with a Bing Crosby song dosed with a big handful of silvery tinsel and hung with candy canes, then broadcast in surround sound and Technicolor. It was idyllic and authentic and damnably jolly.
It smelled like gingerbread, too. All over town. He'd noticed that as he'd gotten out of his car on location to meet Heather Miller. The fragrance still lingered here, miles away. How was that even possible? Who ate gingerbread, anyway? Elves?
The upshot was, Kismet was everything Casey typically avoided. Times ten. Wrapped in a bow. With chaser lights on top and a garland of mistletoe on the side and way too much ho-ho-ho-ing going on in the background. Because, to put it bluntly, Casey was not a "Christmas" kind of guy. As a matter of principle, he dodged all things green and red and sparkly and heartwarming. As a matter of necessity, he didn't "do" the holidays. As a matter of fact, he'd never even been tempted to.
Nothing short of a catastrophe on the scale of Heather Miller's problem-plagued, currently in-production holiday special—and the lucrative bonus Casey stood to earn if he brought it in on budget and on time—could have made him spend more than an hour in a town like Kismet: a place that promised candlelit ice-skating sessions, an official Christmas parade, a fanciful holiday-light house tour, sleigh rides with genuine jingle bells, a Santa Claus-lookalike contest (in the town square, right next to the community's fifty-foot decorated Noble fir tree), and a weekly cookie-decorating gettogether and jamboree.
It was all so flipping wholesome. Casey thought he might be breaking out in freckles and naiveté already. It was possible he felt an "aw-shucks" coming on. He'd only been in town an hour—long enough to meet Heather Miller, hear her initial demands, and start laying the groundwork for the two of them to come to terms. At this rate, he'd morph into Gomer Pyle by lunchtime.
Muttering a swearword, Casey set his Subaru in motion again. He suddenly craved a cigarette, a shot of tequila, and a week's worth of irresponsible behavior—not necessarily in that order.
Boundaries made him itchy. Coziness made him cranky. And the holidays ... well, they sent him straight into Scrooge mode.
While Casey realized that that character quirk was part of what made him ideal for this job—because his antipathy toward the holidays gave him a necessary clarity about Heather Miller's TV special and all its escalating complications—he still wasn't ready for ... this.
He hadn't been ready for Heather Miller's opening salvo in their negotiations, either. Probably because she'd caught him off guard.
The problem is my little sister, the pop star had told Casey bluntly and confidentially, giving him an almost credible dose of blue-eyed solemnity in the process. I haven't been back home to Kismet for a while, Heather had confided, and frankly, I think she's a little starstruck. I need someone to keep her ... occupied for a while, so I can focus on performing.
Casey had been dubious. He'd pushed Heather a little more, relying on his ability to establish an almost instant rapport.
But People magazine's pick for "sexiest songstress" had remained adamant. However unlikely her story, she'd stuck to it.
If you can keep Kristen busy for a while, I'm sure I can make fabulous progress on my special! Heather had insisted. She'd tossed back her long, famously blond hair (there was a shade of Garnier hair color named after her), offered him a professionally whitened smile, and added, Kristen is a great girl. Just a little ... unsophisticated. She's never left Kismet. She doesn't "get" show business the way you and I do.
By the time the former Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, and Vogue cover girl had quit describing her "tomboyish" younger sibling, Casey had formed a pretty clear picture of the braces-wearing, cell phone-toting, gawky girl with Bieber Fever and a wardrobe of Converse sneakers whom he was expected to babysit.
He'd decided to agree to do it, too. To babysit. Him.
Or at least, if not technically babysit—because Heather hadn't actually used that particular word—then entertain the kid long enough to allow Heather to get down to work.
It wouldn't be so bad, Casey figured. He'd probably trail little Kristen Miller to the mall, listen to her squee over the latest Twilight movie with her bubblegum-chewing friends, and watch her check in to Facebook a zillion times a day. Maybe he'd help her with her homework or something. Maybe he'd take her to the zoo. If the zoo was open in December. Whatever it took to keep her out of her older sister's way until the TV special was in the can, that's what Casey was prepared to do.
Frankly, he'd agreed to do worse a few times in his life.
As a gambit meant to earn some goodwill with Heather while encouraging her to fulfill her contractual obligations to the network, it wasn't ideal. It was time consuming and inefficient and oblique. He didn't like the idea of keeping the younger Miller sister "out of the way," either. It seemed heartless. As far as Casey was concerned, Heather should have worked out her differences with her kid sister herself, straightforwardly and reasonably, the way a regular person would have done.
But in this scenario, as in all others, Heather was "the talent." That meant she was exempt from normal human behavior and normal human expectations. Casey had logged plenty of hours pacifying performers like her. He knew the score by now. More than likely, Heather's little sister did, too.
If Kristen Miller was wreaking havoc on the TV special, causing delays for America's sweetheart, she'd have to be dealt with. Casey would have to be the one to do it. The sooner, the better. Once he'd assessed the situation more closely, he'd reevaluate things, he promised himself. For now, he planned to meet Kristen, figure out her angle, and see what happened from there. It wasn't a perfect beginning, but it was a start. And Casey believed, above all else, in moving forward.
Because nothing ever lasted forever.
Except maybe fruitcake.
And that persistent gingerbread aroma all over town.
It was actually starting to smell good to him. Spicy and sweet and full of down-home goodness, with just a hint of—
Ugh. Screw this, Casey decided as he noticed the unbelievably sappy direction his thoughts had just taken. He was jonesing for old-timey gingerbread, daydreaming about its flavor profile like a wine aficionado anticipating a limited-run Napa Valley merlot, craving its Christmassy qualities most of all. I need a detour from Christmasville before I do something stupid.
So he wrenched his steering wheel sideways, floored the gas, and pulled into his destination fifteen minutes ahead of schedule. He might not find the Teenaged Terror of TV Specials in the first place Heather had suggested he look, but anything was better than giving in to Christmas ... and all the syrupy, sentimental, deceitful promises that came right along with it.
When her sister had called her in a panic, warning her about some L.A.-based "hatchet man" who'd come to Kismet to shut down her part-live, part-taped holiday TV special, Kristen Miller hadn't thought much about it. She was used to Heather acting like a drama queen. The whole world was used to Heather acting like a drama queen. After all, Heather had earned multiple accolades, bucketsful of cash, and three People's Choice Awards for her ability to "entertain" people ... by acting like a drama queen.
Whether the situation called for it or not, Heather was always up for a bravura performance. She'd become famous for singing, but she'd never been limited to that. These days, more often than not, her antics involved fashion shows, dating, or just "being seen" at a fabulous party or gala red carpet.
People loved Heather. They loved buying the things she bought, going the places she went, and saying the catchphrases she said. They loved seeing her, hearing about her, and thinking about her. They loved reading about her. They loved ... her.
At least most people did. On the phone, Heather was insisting that the "hatchet man" had come to Kismet to destroy her career. So he probably did not love her. Very much.
As far as Kristen could tell, he was a minority of one.
"The production company must have hired him," Heather said with an Oscar-worthy tremor in her voice. "He's here to ruin me! He's here to torpedo my chances with the network! Forever! If he's here, it can't be good. It can't be. Casey Jackson is the industry's hit man! He's a contract killer! You should hear the stories they tell about him! This one time, they say, he—"
"Hold on. Take a deep breath," Kristen interrupted. She ducked into the tiny office space she kept at the back of her diner. It was quieter there, away from the clamor of the kitchen and the din of the front of the house. "I doubt anyone is out to get you or to ruin your career. There's probably a reasonable explanation for all of this," she said, because nothing ever went wrong for her famous sibling. "But I'll be on the lookout anyway. Okay? Thanks for the warning. Now, the breakfast rush is still going on and this place is packed, so I've really got to—"
"You've got to do more than just be on the lookout!" her sister shrieked. "You've got to stop him for me!"
"How am I supposed to do that?"
"Keep him busy. Distract him. Keep him away from me, no matter what!" Heather begged. "If Casey Jackson gets his way, I'll never get my own reality show. And you know how much I really, really want my own reality show."
"I know." Her sister was fanatical about getting her own TV show ("Like the Kardashians, only classier!"). She saw her Live! from the Heartland TV special as a crucial first step—as a real-time audition and showcase. She'd talked about little else since blowing back into town. Because despite all her success and popularity, inexplicably, Heather still wasn't satisfied.
"I know you want that," Kristen said gently. "I do. I hope you get it. I really do. But I don't know how I can possibly help with this situation, except to say `calm down'"—here, she mimed breathing in deeply—"and try to get some perspective."
There was a pause. The sounds of hammering and chattering filtered over the line in the background. Heather was on set, then. Just when Kristen started thinking she'd made a dent ...
"I know! Feed him some of your pie!" Heather suggested brightly. "Once The Terminator has had some of your pie, he'll—"
"Wait. `The Terminator'?"
"That's Casey Jackson's nickname in L.A."
Kristen scoffed. "It is not."
"Would I lie to you?"
Hmm. Better not answer that one. Instead, in her most soothing tone, Kristen said, "My pie isn't magical." It was her diner's most popular item, though. Hands down. "I can't just feed your Terminator some pie and then have my way with him."
"Yes, you can!" Heather blurted. "Feed him pie! You never know until you try. That stuff is addictive. Once you give The Terminator a few bites, he'll be putty in your hands."
"You are seriously overstating my culinary charms."
"I am not. Just don't be fooled! He'll seem nice. He'll seem charming," Heather cautioned. "But underneath it all, The Terminator has all the heart and soul of a calculator."
"He can't be that bad."
"Oh yes, he can." Another clatter-filled pause. Then, ominously, Heather added, "He doesn't even like Christmas."
"He doesn't like Christmas?" Kristen froze. The idea didn't compute. "What kind of person doesn't like Christmas?"
"The kind of person who comes to shut down another person's Christmas special! That's what I've been telling you!"
Excerpted from Together for Christmas by Lisa Plumley Copyright © 2012 by Lisa Plumley. Excerpted by permission of ZEBRA BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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